“I thought it was a good, no, make that great, meeting last night,” said Clarke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy.
Last night, Clarke County’s top school administrators, as well as several counselors and teachers gathered for the first of two summit meetings in order to take a closer look at the county’s college preparatory classes known as International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placement (AP) and Bridge, a collaborative program with James Madison University program that offers students direct college course credit.
The meeting was held at the request of the Clarke County School Board.
The two hour marathon session, which was attended by approximately 30 parents, teachers and several school board candidates, was a blend of brainstorming, data analysis and problem identification intended to determine the cause of recent IB and AP student performance concerns and to assess CCPS’s ability to continue supporting the broad course offerings aimed at college bound students. A similar meeting scheduled for next week will look at the school division’s support for vocational student course offerings.
Dr. Murphy, who has come under increasing pressure from School Board member Robina Bouffault (White Post) regarding student performance and his staff’s ability to support the current broad mix of course offerings, opened last night’s session by challenging Bouffault’s assertion of that the solution to poor IB / AP student performance is to overhaul Clarke’s college preparatory approach and jettison many of its programs.
“I’d like to address the ‘perception’ of declining enrollment and declining performance in our IB and AP programs,” Murphy said in his opening remarks. “We have listened to our students and to our community when building our course offering. We have high expectations in Clarke County and that’s what brings us here together tonight. We’ve looked deeply at a lot of data and we have had some incredible ‘ah-ha’s’ from looking at student data.”
Murphy said that Clarke Schools have encouraged students to excel beyond what the student might have thought that they could have achieved for a long time, but over the last couple of years the school system has had to rethink that “celebration.” Murphy said the changes, necessitated by $2.1M in budget cuts over the last three years, have “created a lot of distress both on the way up and on the way down but the educational research is clear.”
“When great things are expected from students, students generally rise toward the expectations,” Murphy said. “Offering programs with high expectations is really important but it is also a balancing game.”
School board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) said that she believed that more than half of the parents in Clarke County have an expectation that advanced courses be offered for students.
“I would think that if you surveyed Clarke County parents at least fifty percent expect that their kids are going to college,” said School Board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville). “Not every kid is going to a four-year college, but if you’re college bound then I think that you need advanced classes.
Prior to last night’s meeting, school board members were provided with the opportunity to submit questions for response by school staff members. Last night, Murphy read each question aloud, school staff then responded with school board members asking follow-up questions.
While school staff may have discovered valuable clues to instructional and program problems in the weeks leading up to last night’s session, school board members and the public likely had their own “ah-ha” moments during last night’s discussion.
One such moment came when CCPS director of curriculum Dr. Lisa Floyd presented a chart detailing local student course grades in comparison to the final IB result score. The course grade does not always correspond to the score returned by IB. In seven cases, Clarke county students earned an “A” grade for the course from a CCHS instructor, yet an external IB examiner assigned a “D” for the student’s IB result.
Observing that the local grades didn’t correspond to the international grade assignments Robina Bouffault said, “I think that there appears to be just a smidge of grade inflation here.”
Floyd agreed with Bouffault’s assessment and said that the problem was being addressed.
“We’re looking at grading protocols right now,” Floyd responded. “This is a work-in-progress. We see it, we recognize it and we’re working on it as a team.”
However, Superintendent Murphy added an additional facet to the grade inflation problem.
“It’s part of the circular problem of education. Every teacher wants their students to have good grades,” Murphy said. “And when students get bad grades we get calls from parents.”
Murphy said that a new evaluation system that he described as “standards-based instruction” will be helpful in addressing the issue by better defining the various components of the approach that a teacher uses in the classroom.
“This type of evaluation will help us identify what the learning standards are and what are the consistent processes that we are looking for,” Murphy said.
Another area of concern discussed was the number of teachers receiving the specialized IB and AP training required to teach the advanced courses.
“You will note the decline in the staff development in the number of teachers over the past three years,” Bouffault said after the meeting.
In 2009, 17 staff members received IB training and three received AP training. That number dropped to nine IB staff training spots and two AP spots in 2010. Last night CCPS staff said that in 2011 three instructors will receive AP training and only one will take the IB training.
“You need to have more teacher training,” Bouffault remarked.
“We agree,” Murphy responded.
While it was clear that a significant amount of staff time was spent over the several weeks leading up to last night’s question and answer period, which also corresponded with annual back-to-school preparations, school staff and administrators weren’t the only ones doing the presenting.
Bouffault took the opportunity to present her own color-coded master scheduling chart which she said indicates that CCPS teaching staff are being stretched too thinly across too many advanced level courses.
“The reason that I color-coded the master schedule was to make very obvious the many different colors that are in our core curriculum,” Bouffault explained. “What I tried to show is that, given our small size, we have teachers who are wearing about six different hats.”
At least one teacher sitting at the discussion table enthusiastically nodded toward CCHS principal Dr. Jeffrey Jackson when Bouffault alluded to staff members being required to handle so many different levels and types – AP, IB, and Bridge – of instruction.
Perhaps the night’s most unexpected eye-opener for school board members and the audience members resulted from the lack of evaluation data rather than the detailed data that was delivered.
With poor performance by Clarke County students on the IB “extended essay,” a 4,000 word independent research paper required by the IB program, as one of the key issues that precipitated last night’s IB / AP review session, Clarke educators revealed just how little evaluation feedback they have about Clarke County student performance on the extended essay.
CCHS IB Director, Thom Potts said that although the cost to CCPS for requesting the IB grader’s comments for Clarke County student’s extended essays was less than $100, Clarke’s IB staff does not request the tests from the IB program for review. The discussion also indicated staff experience deficiencies in the extended essay supervision component of the curriculum.
Jim Deignan, a CCHS English teacher who now supervises students as they go through the extended essay process said “I’ve never read any extended essays.” Thom Potts then told school board members that the teacher who had previously supervised the extended essay component of the program last year was no longer with the school division.
Although last night’s discussion focused on advanced courses, the conversation did touch on other topics. During her school performance questioning, Bouffault focused briefly on weak standards of learning (SOL) performance by CCPS students by asking Dr. Murphy what corrective measures are currently in place for teachers with poor SOL results.
“How many teacher performance plans are currently in place given the FY11 SOL results?” Bouffault asked.
“Without asking the building principals specifically I can’t honestly tell you,” Murphy replied.
“We’ll you’ve got one building principal sitting right here,” Bouffault persisted.
Dr. Jackson, Clarke County High School Principal, replied that he was aware of at least one corrective action plan for a teacher at the high school.
“I do know that it is not uncommon to have one or more teachers in every building who are under assistance,” Murphy replied.
With a future work session for vocational education issues planned for September 12, school board members came away with very different opinions from last night’s meeting.
“I think that there are many kids who aren’t taking the IB and AP tests, especially since the school district is no longer paying for the test,” said school board member Janet Alger (Russell). “Because we are looking at such small numbers it could mean that we aren’t getting a good idea of what’s really happening. By continuing to look at the data I think that we’ll get a better understanding of how to best proceed.”
“For now I’m satisfied that we’re moving in the right direction,” Alger added.
School board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) expressed similar sentiments about the quality of CCPS’s advanced course offerings.
“I wasn’t aware of the immense amount of data collection that the school administration is doing,” Welliver said.
Welliver characterized last night’s meeting as “very informative” and, in her opinion, CCPS does not have too many advanced course offerings.
“I was very satisfied with the answers that were provided tonight,” Welliver said. “The school staff has identified the program weaknesses and is putting together a plan. We also have a new high school principal who appears to be pulling the staff together and building an effective team.”
School board member Robina Bouffault, however, offered a different assessment.
“It’s not about what you’d like to do, but rather making a determination based on what’s best for our students,” Bouffault said last night. “We can’t continue to do things the same way that we have been. There needs to be some structural changes.”
Bouffault continued; “Back in 2008 this school board issued a position paper that said our two most important goals were student performance and an increase in vocational programs. We have accomplished neither goal to date. Tonight I think that we started to identify the problems but, after the next session is complete, we need to have serious discussions about changing the current structure because it is not working very well.”
Superintendent Mike Murphy said that he was pleased to have discussions about school performance in an open and transparent forum.
“All too often folks only have a part of the picture – and sometimes the picture is, unfortunately, a complicated one,” Murphy said. “There were good questions by the School Board and super responses by staff.”
Whether the “structural changes” hoped for by Bouffault will ultimately be supported by the school board will likely hinge on the support of school board member Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh) – who chaired last night’s meeting for school board chair Barbara Lee (Millwood) who was absent due to medical reasons- and Lee.
Although Rhodes has announced that she will not run for re-election – her position appears destined for Beth Leffel in an unopposed election race. Lee has decided to run again, but is also unopposed. Jennifer Welliver is facing an election challenge from Berryville resident, James Brinkmeier.